I can understand why it is questioned that Emily Dickinson was a true lesbian love poet. After all, soon after her death (and even during her life time), editors messed up her poems ridiculously. For example,
They changed pronouns from “she” to “he”;
- They changed punctuation, and capitalization, often altering the meaning of a poem;
- They “fixed” the meter to match that of “acceptable” poetry, without regard to the intent of the poet;
- They titled the poems willy nilly, and not as Emily intended.
What poet could survive that kind of massacre?
It truly speaks to the credit of Emily Dickinson that her poetry not only survived, but flourished in spite of all this editorial muddling. Emily Dickinson is now considered one of The Great American Poets. Without question.
The cruelest edits may have those that altered her sexual identity. Many respected scholars today still don’t accept Emily as a lesbian, and she was! Yes, she may have loved one or more men, but that was platonic, and not as she loved women. Let’s take a look at one of her most famous poems:
Wild Nights — Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Futile — the Winds —
To a Heart in port —
Done with the Compass —
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden —
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight —
There is just no way in creation that a proper unmarried Victorian lady, which Emily was, could possibly have written these lines with a man in mind. It is only slightly less scandalous that she wrote them with a woman in mind. But that is the only possibility.
The last stanza in particular is so clear. The reference to “Eden”, the place where forbidden sexual delights were first discovered. Emily’s choice is clear: a woman lover.
Or consider this poem:
Her breast is fit for pearls,
But I was not a `Diver’ –
Her brow is fit for thrones
But I have not a crest.
Her heart is fit for home –
I – a Sparrow – build there
Sweet twigs and twine
My perennial nest.
To nest forever at the breast of her beloved is so heavenly to Emily.
So who was this lover? Most likely it was Susan Gilbert, a very special friend who eventually married Emily’s brother. Emily wrote over 300 poems to Susie, more than to any other person. Sadly, the letters that Susie wrote back to Emily were destroyed. At one point Emily wrote to Susie: ” Never mind the letter, Susie; you have so much to do; just write me every week one line, and let it be, ‘Emily, I love you,’ and I will be satisfied!”
Watch the lovely actress Lee Remick read two of Emily’s poems: “This is my letter to the world” and “I heard a fly buzz when I died”.
Emily Dickinson probably had strong lesbian feelings most of life. When Emily was a young girl just coming of age, she had a dear friend in her cousin Sophia Holland. When Emily was just 14, Sophia died of typhus. Emily was totally heart broken, writing that “it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be permitted to watch over her or even look at her face.” She became so distraught that her parents sent Emily to stay with friends in Boston for a while. This is not the normal sadness of the loss of a friend, even a close friend. It is the loss of someone so dear to her her heart that Emily truly felt broken. There is no evidence that Emily and Sophia were lovers, but I personally have no doubt that the love was there.
I’ve begun reading Emily Dickinson in a new light. And I like what I read, now that I know that she was indeed such a sensual writer, a lover, a lesbian.
New Revelations on Emily Dickinson, the Poet and the Lover
First, an astonishing new publication has emerged, one that captures some of Dickinson’s poems in her own handwriting. If you like, check out my review of Emily Dickinson: the Gorgeous Nothings. If you would like to order it, see the Gift page.
Next, do read Jay Leyda’s insightful article on Dickinson that was published in the New Republic in December 2013 (titled “Emily Dickinson’s Reputation Totally Shifted in 1955“). In it he talks about the misconceptions of Emily, including her love life, and outlines some of the spectacular new works that will be published over the coming year. This is so incredibly exciting!
The image at the top of the page was the only known picture of Emily Dickinson for nearly two centuries. The picture shown here was recently discovered, and is believed to be the only picture of Emily as an adult. She is certainly a handsome woman, as is Kate Scott Turner Anthon. Even though Kate may have been Emily’s lover, speculation is still strong that Susie was truly Emily’s real love. It is interesting to note, too, that for all those two centuries it was widely reported that Emily wore a white dress, but in the only two photos that exist of her, she is wearing black, or at least a dark color. Errors like this really make one wonder about the validity of “scholarly” research.
Emily Dickinson was certainly more than a poet. One of her passions was her garden. She kept a beautiful garden herself, and she even created a book of pressed flowers and leaves, all beautifully mounted and labeled. You can see it reproduced here.
A new opera on Emily Dickinson presents her as a much more social person, a much stronger person, than is usually acknowledged. I like Eva Kendirck’s interpretation on many levels — it just fits Emily so well. This new work premiered in Louisville in the spring of 2014. Read more about “Emily” here.
I like the vision of an independent Emily so much more than the traditional image of a recluse. She so perceptive, so in touch with everyone and every thing around her that it is hard to believe that she spent her life in isolation.
And do bake a Cocoanut (as Emily would have spelled it) Cake, a la Emily Dickinson! Or even her famous Black Cake! Have a party, and dress in white, and read some of Emily’s wonderful poems.
For her 70th birthday celebration, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa asked that a selection of Emily Dickinson’s poems be set to music for her. And so, in the summer of 2014, a splendid new work premiered on the grounds of the Ravinia Festival outside of Chicago. With Emily’s words and Dame Kiri’s exquisite voice, this must have been a concert to remember forever!
What is your impression of Emily Dickinson? If you were to meet her, what sort of woman would you be meeting? And what would you like to ask her? Do jot your feelings below.
Other Resources on Emily Dickinson
(Note: There are literally thousands of articles and books about Dickinson. Listed here are simply some interesting contemporary thoughts.)
Dickinson: Raw or Cooked, in New York Review of Books